‘99 Problems’ but Danger Mouse Ain’t One: An Insight Into the Conflicting Issues Surrounding The Grey Album.

Sharadai Rambarran

Salford University

Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass once said: ‘… if it wasn’t for the technology we wouldn’t be having this conversation…’ (Future Music)  [1].  He was referring to the creative and music technology that contributed to Tim Simenon’s success as a DJ and Producer.  Technology has rapidly increased over the last few decades and it is the digital qualities that have been rising with the use of MP3s, computer software, the Internet etc.   Technology has become more accessible to people, and anyone can make music today whether or not you are a musician, composer or producer. The music created (especially if sampling is involved), can be for personal or commercial use and sometimes can result in unexpected consequences and therefore the creativity and authenticity of the product is questioned.  This paper focuses on an issue in 2004 involving digital sampling.   Former bedroom record producer and DJ, Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, ingeniously genre-blended the Beatles’ self-titled album (better known as the White Album) and Jay-Z’s Black Album and wittily called it the Grey Album.  Originally for personal use, it appeared on the Internet and was appreciated by the public. He was, however, condemned by the music business for not asking copyright permission of the Beatles’ works, an accusation that ignored the creativity of this record.  The paper will argue that the Grey album should not be seen as an easy attempt to make music by mixing well-known works, and will claim instead, that it should be considered as art. Concerns such as authorship, authenticity and the theory of deconstruction will be raised as well as an insight to the genre the Grey Album belongs to and an analysis of one of its tracks.

In 2003, one of the most successful rap and hip-hop artists Jay-Z released what was known as his ‘final’ album.  The Black Album was saturated with significant input from producers such as the Neptunes, Timbaland and Rick Rubin, and it was Jay-Z’s homage to himself, reflecting on his turbulent life and his successful career.  The album was an instant success along with his ‘final’ music videos and his ‘farewell’ tour. To keep his legacy alive, Jay-Z released an a capella version of the Black Album as an invitation to professional and amateur DJs, musicians, and producers to remix his work.    A daring idea that one of them had was to make a collage of Jay-Z’s and the Beatles’ work; this person was, of course, Danger Mouse.  Danger Mouse was aware that he needed permission from EMI, the owners of the Beatles’ sound recordings, but he knew that his request would be rejected; therefore, he kept his work ‘low key’ and for ‘personal’ use only.  After distributing the Grey Album to family and friends, it was leaked on the Internet and became available on the file-sharing networks which were accessed illegally by the media and public.  Due to the easy access to the work, known as downloading, the media, such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine obtained copies of the album and extensively praised it.  
After being famously quoted for saying that ‘every kick, snare, and chord is taken from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ and is in their original recording somewhere…’ (United Press, 2004), Danger Mouse finally confronted his worse fear, a cease and desist letter from EMI, owner of the sound recordings of the Beatles’ works. EMI ignored the creativity of the record and simply ordered Danger Mouse and the distributors to destroy copies of the Grey Album.   Danger Mouse obeyed, but his fans and supporters of the project opposed EMI’s instruction and argued that the record company refused to see the creativity of the music and the benefits it could bring to the business.  In particular, an Internet based music activist group, Downhill Battle, took one step further and decided to stage a world-wide protest, famously known as ‘Grey Tuesday.’  My thanks go to Channel 4 news, without which I would have never known about this day!  Grey Tuesday involved more than 150 websites who uploaded the Grey Album for visitors to download.  On February 2004, despite being threatened by EMI, the day went ahead and apparently over 1,000,000 people downloaded the album.  Nicholas Reville of Downhill Battle argued that ‘EMI is censoring a work of art… not only are they telling musicians the kind of music they can or cannot create, they’re trying to tell the public what we can and cannot listen to…’(Moody, 2004).  Even if Danger Mouse had asked copyright permission and had been prepared to contribute to royalties, the chances are that EMI would still have said no. It is a fact that people can do covers of Beatles’ songs without permission, but the use of Beatles’ recordings in other music is definitely not allowed.  Are there any famous works out there which have sampled Beatles music?  [2] Before the Grey Album, it had been alleged  that the Beatles had been sampled but in a cleverly disguised manner, and they were also on bootleg tracks such as Pork Pie Man’s ‘A Life in the Day’ and JPL’s ‘Let It Be Miss Elliot (Beatles mix)’ (Wikipedia, 2005). Although the Beatles have been the inspiration of many bands’ works (e.g. Oasis), Danger Mouse has proven that actual recordings of their distinguished works are also a creative source of art that blends music of yesterday and today.  No one should feel guilty about using samples, providing they are used in an artistic and musical manner.   Sampling has an important role in rap and hip-hop music, with break beats being the obvious example, vocal samples are usually used to bring out the (social) meaning of the song.  Yet, because record companies are asking for too much money for sampling fees, musicians are restricted to the use of fewer samples and sometimes even make up their own.  In Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems,’ he used two samples, and the chorus itself was an interpolation of another song under the same title.  The Beatles are no exception, either, as they had their hands on sampling with the analogue tape-looped technology used on ‘Revolution 9’. They did not have to pay for sampling fees, however, as it was EMI’s material and obviously their record company (or the fact that they were THE BEATLES).  Being this band was an extreme advantage! Although Danger Mouse is not as popular as the Beatles, EMI were probably wary of losing profit if they did grant permission to him. But what if a huge artist such as Jay-Z had asked? Would the situation be different?  Indeed, all parties involved would had benefited from the Grey Album, as over one million downloads on Grey Tuesday made it equivalent to a platinum album.  One has to remember that even though Danger Mouse maybe seen as the victim, the media and the public are also to blame, since their downloads contributed to the arguments.

Postmodernist aspects of the Grey Album

The Grey Album is postmodern in its being a collage of two well-known records of different musical styles, in the technological manipulation of the sounds, and in its play of oppositions, such as the past and present, and analogue and digital music (for example ‘live’ recorded instruments on the White Album, with the exception of ‘Revolution 9’, versus the mainly sample-oriented on the Black Album).  Since the past is represented by the Beatles and the present is represented by Jay-Z, this opposition is questionable when evaluating the Black Album.  As Jay-Z’s self-tribute album, it is supposedly his final album, and thus becomes a part of history, Jay-Z’s history. Therefore, is the Black Album part of the past or present?  Did Danger Mouse mix two records of the past?  Another characteristic of postmodernism that Danger Mouse bravely used is the combination of high and popular culture (with regard to art and music).   Another debatable topic in regards to Beatles is the representation of elite culture at the time of their success.  It is arguable that the Beatles included some postmodern features in their music especially with their experimental albums, but they remain one of the bands situated within modernist ambitions of their time and today.  With Jay-Z, one might say that his music and himself as an artist have played a social role in youth awareness, and the style of the music is evident in all aspects of popular culture such as current affairs, film and television music etc.

Binary oppositions deconstructed in the Grey Album

The very title of the Grey Album suggests a deconstruction of a black and white binary opposition rather than a synthesis.  Grey challenges us to say at which point it might turn into black or, alternatively, white. From a musical and not a racial sense, the colours may have some symbolic reference to the musicians and music.  Jay-Z’s Black Album signifies the death and the end of his persona, which is evident in his music video ‘99 Problems’ where Jay-Z plays out his own death.  It is interesting that Jay-Z’s record cover is in black and thus a negative pastiche of the White Album, which is famous for its white record sleeve  [3].    According to fans and critics, the White Album signified the beginning of the end of the band due to their solo projects and issues that arose during the recording of the album.  In 1967, the Beatles went to a spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, India to escape from the pressures of celebrity and psychedelic lifestyle and it was also known that the Beatles’ relationships with each other were deteriorating.  At first, the retreat seemed to have helped the Beatles relax and they were composing songs together until an incident occurred that involved their spiritual leader Maharishi Manesh Yogi.  This incident left the Beatles shocked and confused; therefore, they continued to drift apart.  Ringo Starr left the band but quickly returned. George Harrison felt neglected as a member and more of a session guitarist, and he also wanted to focus on his song writing.  John Lennon was into drugs and it was around this time that he had met Yoko Ono.  Paul McCartney tried to keep the Beatles together and wrote the popular Beatles’ singles for the next few years (Quantick, 2002).  Another way of reading the title is to be aware that the colour ‘white’ in India can signify ‘death’, which supports George Harrison’s statement that ‘the rot had already set in’ (Lewisohn 1988, p.163), marking the Beatles’ final years.

Bastard Pop

Danger Mouse’s Grey Album belongs to the genre of ‘Bastard Pop’ which is comprised of illegal music and the use of unauthorised samples without belonging to a record company. A more popular term for this genre is ‘mash-up’ which become popular in 2001.  A mash up is when two famous records are mixed together and one song usually dominates the other.  Mash-ups are popular and have been exposed on MTV and XFM.  Because of the technology involved, Kembrew McLeod has stated that ‘mash ups couldn’t have happened without the digital distribution power of the Internet and file-trading networks such as Kazaa, Livewire etc.’ (McLeod, 2005). Critics have claimed that the Grey Album is a mash-up, which is both agreeable and debatable, but if the listener is unaware of the Beatles’ music then he or she would not be able guess what song was sampled.  The album is more suited to a sub-genre, the bootleg category or even the remix category, as it is a form of remixilogy, which is explained by Kodwo Eshun as ‘the science of the sequel and the art of the drastic retro fit, the total remake, the remodel’  (Eshun 1998, p.74).  Therefore, following Eshun, I would argue that the Grey Album is the sequel of the Black and White Album, and an art of the ‘drastic retrofit, the total remake,’ described by Eshun. To help us to understand the Grey Album’s creativity and artistry, Danger Mouse describes the album as a ‘complete deconstruction and reconstruction’ (Moody, 2004), which leads us neatly to the next discussion, concerning the theory of deconstruction.

Deconstruction and the Grey Album

Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky said that DJ-ing is a form of writing and that ‘you can always squeeze something out of the past and make it become new...’(Miller 2004a, p.56). To create the Grey Album, Danger Mouse deconstructed the two albums. In Derrida’s words, such an activity becomes a ‘double writing…a writing that is in and itself…called…a double science’ (Derrida 2004, p.38).   Like postmodernism, deconstruction has no simple straight forward definition but has many characteristics and meanings.  In Danger Mouse’s case, he took both albums apart (in particular the White Album) and analysed, dissembled and reconstructed them as a new listening experience. Danger Mouse innocently followed ‘the deconstructionist method, whereby a text is pried open, and drained of the meanings intended by the author...’ (McLeod, 2005).  Deconstruction normally works within an opposition, an opposition which tends to dominate the other as Derrida said: ‘to deconstruct the opposition…is to overturn of the hierarchy,’ (Derrida, p.38). That may be disappointing to the supporters of the autonomy of art, but one needs to realise that without the aid of the particular work, the product would never had happened.  Because of the Beatles success, they are the ‘hierarchy’, the controlling term of the opposition; therefore Danger Mouse ‘overturned’ their dominance musically by giving Jay-Z’s vocals priority.   What is fascinating is that although Jay-Z maintains the ‘lead’ role on the Grey Album, his vocals rely on the music of the Beatles for the remix to work.  What is also interesting about deconstruction is that you do not think about what you are going to do, you just do it: as McLeod explained ‘[it] cannot really be understood in the abstract because it is first and foremost an activity.’ (McLeod, 2005). Deconstruction produces new meanings and relations between the oppositions.  The Black and White Albums are two completely unrelated sources, but there are similarities in the music, e.g. some rock influences, use of sampling, guest musicians etc.  The albums would have appealed to people of different generations at different times.  For that reason Danger Mouse may not have realised that the record he had created was a deconstructive piece of work.
The next question is, who should be considered the author of the Grey Album?   

Authorship and ownership

‘Music Technology…which allows existing sounds to be recorded and reused or manipulated at will, has had a major impact on ideas of originality, creativity and ownership’  (Scott, p.144).  So therefore, when you hear a song that has simply been remixed, you may think of the original artist or if you hear a song that had been cleverly remixed, you may want to know the creator of the record. It is arguable that the Grey Album belongs to Jay-Z; after all, his vocals are evident from start to finish. There again, it could be argued that it belongs to the Beatles because it is based on their music.  Yet, Danger Mouse’s creation is a form of improvisation and the product bears his name and musical fingerprints, as DJ Spooky describes:
The DJ acts as the cybernetic inheritor of the improvisational tradition of jazz, where various motifs would be caused and recycled by various musicians of the genre…the DJ combines the musical expression of other musicians with their own and in the process creates a seamless flow of music. (Miller 2004b, 350)
Whenever I improvise in a band or for a recording, I would like to think whatever I compose issues from my own creativity.  However, I understand that improvising, composing, writing and other creative acts are influenced by (traditional) past sources and this could indicate that there is no such thing as authorship. Indeed, Roland Barthes claimed ‘the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior never original…’ (Barthes 1977, p.145).  Yet, I do believe that a degree of ownership of a product should be recognised or honoured.  Barthes disagrees, as the writer’s text ‘is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ (Barthes, p.145).  Foucault, however, contends that regardless of any work produced, the text ‘must be received in a certain mode and that in any given culture, must receive a certain status’ (Foucault 1986, p.107), suggesting that there should be a limited sense of authorship.  The White, Black and Grey Albums were made and released at different times and in different contexts relating to culture and society.  The author of the Grey Album should, from a Foucaultian perspective, be ‘a name [who] permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others…it establishes a relationship among the texts,’ (Foucault, p.107).  What is important about Jay-Z and the Beatles works’ works is that ‘they are unique… [And] have produced something else: the possibilities and rules for the formation of other texts,’ (Foucault, p.114), and the Grey Album should be understood as an illustration of ‘the way you pick up language from other writers… [and] remake it as your own’ (Miller 2004a, p.57).  The album is certainly controversial, but Foucault said an author should:
neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in…text…[and] there must be- a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious- a point however contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are last tied together… (Foucault, p.111)
This is relevant to Danger Mouse, since he fulfilled his desire to put incompatible elements together thanks to the digital technology that had only recently made it possible.  Therefore it is fair to say that the careful intelligence controlling this intertextual combination of two famous records should entitle Danger Mouse to be recognized as the author of the Grey Album.  

Musical Analysis of ‘99 Problems’

‘99 Problems’ will be analysed, as it was Danger Mouse’s most challenging song to mix; after all, he did say that ‘mixing two records takes discipline and creativity’ (Tyrangiel 2005, p.70).  To understand the importance of the ‘99 Problems’, it is crucial to know the history behind the records used.


Jay-Z’s song ’99 Problems’ highlights his life as a drug dealer before he achieved success as a rap artist.   The main hook of the song is the chorus and is an interpolation of Ice-T and Brother Marquis’ ‘99 Problems’, which is about a different subject and inappropriate for the present discussion.  It is worth mentioning that the interpolation was not credited on the Black Album.  After Jay-Z’s opening line, a heavy rock guitar riff is heard throughout the song, which is due its rock and hip hop producer, Rick Rubin, of Def Jam fame.  When Rick Rubin worked with Russell Simmons on Def Jam, he would always contribute hints of rock in hip-hop music.  On ‘99 Problems’, there are two power chords which were sampled from Billy Squier’s ‘Big Beat’.  The break beat on ‘99 Problems’ was also from the same song and has been used by other groups such as the Prodigy.  A sample of Mountain’s ‘Long Red’ is also included. Therefore, this song was made up of beats, percussion, guitar and vocals (with additional record scratching and effects) to produce of what became a significant song in Jay-Z’s musical career.

The Beatles

 ‘Helter Skelter’ was a rock song that in the opinion of Jeff Russell, was ‘the heaviest sound that the Beatles produced’ (Russell 1982, p.95). The song was inspired by the Who and written by Paul McCartney. The line-up comprised drums, guitars, and bass, saxophone, trumpet and backing vocals.  Originally recorded for 25 minutes, it was edited to a shorter length to fit on the White Album.  The song has a hint of blues although it does not follow a typical blues format.  Lennon and McCartney both shared lead guitar and bass parts and McCartney’s voice had a loud and aggressive tone to suit the style.  Its title referred to the fairground slide, but the song became better known for Charles Manson’s message to murder people  [4], which he and his followers certainly did.  Lennon testified in court that ‘Helter Skelter’ was about the fairground slide and nothing else! (Russell, p.96)

99 Problems for Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse used to employ a basic set up with an 8-track and a mini-disc to create the final mix.  The production of the Grey Album however, entailed a basic setup of a computer with Sonic Foundry Acid Pro software, Pro Tools for the final mix, and computer speakers as monitors (O’Conner, 2004).  The set up is a form of ‘DJ Tools’ in which DJ Spooky explains the ‘stuff that people are meant to mix, and the technologies to do it- become important, but they have to leave enough room, for people to check them out in their own way…’ (Miller 2004a, p.24), and this is what exactly Danger Mouse did as he spent two and a half weeks in his bedroom  [5] to create the Grey Album.  He had listened to the White Album four times to search for music to use (Greenman, 2004).  To avoid a cheap thrill of mixing records together without any thought or passion put towards it, DJ Spooky said the mixing ‘should be really wild…anything else is boring’ (Miller, p.24). To achieve this, one task of ‘99 Problems’ was to beat-match both tracks; as Danger Mouse explained: ‘It would have been easy to slap the vocals over music of the same tempo…but I wanted to match the feel of the tracks too…’ (Greenman, 2004).  The original tempo for Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems’ was 95 bpm, and the Beatles was around 83 bpm.  In Danger Mouse’s version, he kept Jay-Z’s tempo, and increased the tempo of ‘Helter Skelter’ while retaining the original pitch.  With a tempo increase, the pitch would also shift, but one of the features of ACID software is that it keeps the original key at any given tempo, otherwise known as time stretching.  Unlike the other tracks on the Grey Album, a problem that Danger Mouse had encountered was in providing the rhythm on ‘99 Problems.’  It is the norm to have drums to set the tempo but it was challenging to re-arrange the drums from ‘Helter Skelter’, so the bass line was used instead.  The bass plays the note E all the way through and accents the beats to keep the music in time.  Danger Mouse also used the Beatles’ harmonies as backing vocals in certain parts of the song, especially in the choruses.  For example, in the introduction, Jay-Z raps and then is gradually supported by the Beatles’ vocals; next, the bass enters to build this section up before the full music sets in.  To keep its rock element, as in  the original version, Danger Mouse sampled guitar fills from ‘Helter Skelter’ and added it to appropriate parts of the music, to fill in sections and support Jay-Z’s vocals.  Other filling-in sections are slightly evident at the start and end of ‘99 Problems’ when Danger Mouse uses parts of the original and remixed tracks from both sources to underlie the music by using a high pass filter  [6].  Without becoming too technical about the process, this brief analysis gives an idea of how ‘99 Problems’ was made.


The topics discussed have shown how Danger Mouse and the Grey Album resulted in positive and negative outcomes concerning issues of copyright, technology, creativity and authorship.  In a legal sense, one has to agree that copyright means copyright and that Danger Mouse should have gained permission; but, knowing the likely outcome of such an application,  [7] we would now regret that we would never have heard the results.  From a business point of view, EMI would have benefited from the album, as the platinum equivalent of downloads on Grey Tuesday has proved.  With the current genre of Bastard Pop and the use of inexpensive technology, people will find it easier to sample music of any style.  There have been calls for copyright legislation to be reviewed: for example ‘there is a need for wider compulsory licensing of not only covers of sound recordings, but remixes and mash-ups as well’ (Rimmer 2005, p.51). A group called ‘The Creative Commons’ launched sampling licences in 2003 to allow works to be altered and put into new music.  Their sampling licence permits composers to allow other people to use their works and for them to be freely distributed on the Internet providing it is for non-commercial purposes.  Danger Mouse has even placed one of his works with them.  [8]

Hopefully, Danger Mouse will be recognised as the author, since he blended two famous works into something new that was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time’ (Grey Album CD sleeve).  The Grey Album also brought more fans for both types of the music it referenced. As Damon Dash, head of Jay-Z’s record label, said: ‘I think it’s hot.  It’s the Beatles. It’s two great legends together’ (Moody, 2004).   As an ex-teacher myself, I recollect that my students, who were Jay-Z fans, wanted to find out more about the Beatles. Although I was already an admirer of the Beatles and hip-hop music, the Grey Album helped me to discover Jay-Z’s rap music.  Among the issues I intend to investigate in future are the Beatles’ fans reaction to the Grey Album and the cost of sampling fees from independent and major record companies. Despite the concerns that Danger Mouse encountered, he has become the most wanted producer and DJ in the industry.  Damon Albarn was so impressed with Danger Mouse’s skills that he got him to produce the Gorillaz’s second album Demon Days, which is, ironically, owned by EMI records!  Danger Mouse has proven that the Grey Album is a powerful record and, having achieved such status, he must have followed George Clinton’s famous words: ‘Think! It ain’t illegal yet!’ (Miller 2004a, p.117).


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Foucault, M. 1986. The Foucault Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Greenman, B. 2004. The House That Remixed. The New Yorker (online), 2nd February 2004.  Available from: < _ talk _ greenman  > liner note to The Grey Album . 2004. Compact Disc.
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Mcleod, K. 2005.  ‘Confessions of an Intellectual (property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and My Long and Winding Path as a copyright activist- academic’. Popular Music and Society (online), v28 il p.79 (15), February 2005.  Available from: <!xrn_1_0_A128169740?sw_aep=salcal2 > [Accessed 6 April 2005].

Miller, P.D. 2004a.  Rhythm Science.  Massachusetts: Mediawork.

—    2004b. ‘Algorithms: Erasures and the Art of Memory’, in Cox, C. and Warner, D. (eds.) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. London: Academi.

Moody, N.M. 2004. ‘Album mixing Jay-Z’s “Black Album” with Beatles “White Album” an unauthorised hit’.  Entertainment News, The Associated Press (online), 25 February 2004.  Available from: < > [Accessed 9th September 2004].

O’Conner, B. 2004. M.A.S.H  I.T U.P. DJ Times Magazine (online), v17, Number 8, August 2004.  Available from:   < > [Accessed 9th September 2004].

Quantick, D. 2002. Revolution: The Making of the Beatles’ White Album. London: Unanimous Ltd.

Rimmer, M. 2005.  ‘The Grey Album: Copyright Law and Digital Sampling’. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, No. 114: 40-53

Russell, J. 1982. The Beatles Album File and Complete Discography 1961-1982. Dorset: Blandford Press.

Scott, D. 1998. ’ Postmodernism and Music’, in Sim, S. (ed.) The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought.  London: Icon Books Ltd.

Tyrangiel, J. 2005. A Rodent in the Gorilla House. Time (online), v165 i22 p.70, 30th May 2005.  Available from: <!xrn_1_0_A132660532?sw_aep=salcal2 > [Accessed 20th June 2005]

United Press. 2004.  ‘EMI Halts Beatles Remix Album’. United Press International (online), 16 February 2004.  Available from: <> [Accessed 9th September 2004].

Wikipedia Encyclopaedia. 2005. Available on: <www://>

Other Internet Sources Consulted:

Creative Commons,
Downhill Battle,
Grey Tuesday,


  1. I cannot remember the exact reference for the magazine, sorry
  2. With the exception of Sonic Youth’s The Whitey Album’   (under the name of ‘Ciccone Youth’), with its royalties paid for through their record company, Geffen Records.
  3. Which was designed by Pop Art artist, Richard Hamilton
  4. Quantick, D. 2002. Revolution: The Making of the Beatles’ White Album. London: Unanimous Ltd. (p.138)
  5. Over 200 hours, in fact!
  6. D.M also uses this technique in the Gorrilaz album ‘Demon Days’
  7. knowing that it would have been rejected or too costly
  8. Danger Mouse featuring Jemini ‘What you sitting on?’